Did Bigfoot murder three men at a Northern California pot farm in the early ’90s? That may sound like a joke, but it’s the question that kicks off Sasquatch, Hulu’s new three-episode true crime series about monsters, marijuana, murder, and the maddening quest for truth. I caught the first episode at the SXSW Film Festival and was instantly hooked by the show’s perspective, its cinematic pacing, and its sense of dread. And before I interviewed director Joshua Rofé, I devoured the other two episodes and was pleased to find that the series sticks the landing, remaining enigmatic and unsettling until its final moments.
In our interview, Rofé talks about what it was like to film an investigation in progress, taking cameras into areas that felt profoundly unsafe, and whether or not this project has changed whether or not he believes in bigfoot.
Sasquatch is currently streaming on Hulu.
At what point did you enter this story? Were you there from the beginning, or did you get a phone call from somebody saying, “Hey, I have something going on”?
Yeah, this was sort of my harebrained idea to pursue. Basically, in February 2018, I had dinner with a friend, Zach Cregger, who is one of the exec producers on this. He suggested that I listen to a podcast called Sasquatch Chronicles. So I listened to about eleven episodes in four days, and what I was immediately struck by and also obsessed with was the fact that I was sensing visceral fear from everybody who was calling in and telling their sasquatch encounter or sighting stories. My brain started to do that thing where I knew this was going to be my next project. I didn’t know what it was going to look like. I knew it was going to be sasquatch-centric. I just wondered, “God, if I could find a murder mystery that is somehow wrapped up or intertwined with a sasquatch story, that could be really compelling.” So I reached out to David Holthouse, who is the main subject in this series and one of the producers on it. David’s been a colleague of mine for a number of years at this point, and he’s been an investigative journalist for over 25 years, and a gonzo journalist at that. So he’s one of those people who’s really seen and done a lot of wild things. I sent him a text that said, “Hey, this is the craziest text I’m going to send you for the next five years. If it exists, I would like to find a murder mystery that’s wrapped up in a sasquatch story and pursue that as the next project.” And he wrote my right back and said, “I love it. I got one. I’ll call you in five.” Then he proceeded to tell me this story that he heard in person in 1993 about a sasquatch murdering three people on a weed farm in Northern California. As soon as he told me that, I said, “OK, we’re onto something. Let’s see what happens.”
Were you aware at that point that David would be your protagonist? The series really does treat him as the lead character, and he’s a really compelling, camera-ready guy.
Yeah, having known David for many years, it was obvious to me that he was extremely compelling. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to his This American Life episode, but I would highly recommend that. He’s an incredible storyteller. He’s a person who, I think, due to his life experiences, he has a ton of gravitas. He’s charismatic in that quiet, almost Gene Hackman-like way. I knew right away that I wanted to follow him hunting the origin of this story.
It sounds like when you caught up with him, the mystery hadn’t been solved yet. Without spoiling anything, the documentary follows the investigation actually unfurling. It’s not presented as something that does not have a solution at the start. You see things being solved. Was that the actual process of filming? Really filming alongside the investigation as opposed to editing it that way?
Yeah, very much so. There were so many times where you’d just hit roadblocks and you’d wonder if you were even going to get anywhere. An investigation is not always compelling. It’s full of so many lulls, and moments where you’ve come up completely empty-handed, and a hunch that you had about something, you go and chase it for three weeks, and you realize you were just dead wrong. So this series was truly following David on that path as it was happening.
You use that to your strengths. Some of those roadblocks become really compelling side notes in this story, and even the diversions you take – the Bigfoot experts, for example – are these really fascinating diversions. It creates the idea of getting lost in the mystery as opposed to have something solved and tidy.
Yeah, I think anybody who’s attempted to solve a mystery or get to the bottom of something that maybe other people don’t want you to get to the bottom of, they know that you as the investigator, you as the filmmaker, you are never in control. That may sound like a negative or some sort of drawback, but it’s actually a strength. Because if you give yourself over to that process, you’re going to meet fascinating people along the way. You’re going to go down certain rabbit holes and alleys that, even though they won’t spit you out where you want to be spit out, it’s going to be wild and add a lot of color and texture to the path. I will say, though, Jacob, that was something we had to sort of get used to. I know David was more used to that as an investigator. But as a filmmaker, knowing I’m going to go on a shoot this week and I might come back with nothing, but that’s actually OK. And if we do it enough times, little by little, these bread crumbs will start to add up. What ended up happening was we went from shoots where maybe we learned a thing or two and I’m laying up at night having an existential crisis knowing that I’m a failure attempting to make this and I’ll never be allowed to make anything again, to then, five of those trips, you get three things each time. Now we’re on trip number seven, and every single thing we’re getting is just a stick of dynamite. And only by going through the prior process could we get to that point.
There are moments in this series where I feel like David is in legitimate danger, where he’s wearing hidden cameras, and he’s meeting people in clandestine locations. Did David buffer you from that, or did you feel like you were also in danger?
I think we never felt safe when we were up there. And there was an overwhelming feeling of, I don’t want to overstay my welcome. David is the one who truly faced the most danger, because there were times where –and some of this is in the series, you’ll hear him recount it in a voice memo or in a sort of pickup interview after something happened – but there were times where he was going to go meet a potential source, they changed the location on him multiple times, and now he’s gone to meeting somebody in a public place at 3:00 P.M. to meeting somebody at a bar or restaurant at around 10:30 or 11, and it’s in a totally different town. And oh, by the way, that bar or restaurant? It’s actually closed, and it’s going to be us and eight other people who you didn’t know were going to be there. So he was definitely in some potentially hairy situations many, many times. Including in the hidden camera footage you’re referencing, being up there in the mountains, in those woods. If something had happened to him, there’s no way we would have ever known.
Were there tips you learned from David? As a filmmaker, what are you armed with now to go into a similarly dangerous situation that you learned from making this?
[laughs] You’re lucky if you can get out once. It’s something David mentions on the show: real-time, constant, on-the-fly risk analysis. That checking in with each other on a regular basis is something that was really a big part of the process. I think moving forward, that is definitely something we will continue to lean on, if a project calls for it.
When you set out to make a murder doc about sasquatch, did you realize you’d have to do a crash course on Northern California pot farms? I had no knowledge or history of this area or that culture, and I was utterly transfixed learning about this incredibly niche but also incredibly dark pocket of American culture. At what point did you realize, “This documentary is also about this,” as opposed to just being about Bigfoot?
That’s awesome to hear. Once David started talking to people, particularly in the world of cannabis growing, it became clear that all of that was going to be a big piece. But going in – I thought of this initially as a somewhat quirkier murder mystery. Something that would not have the danger and even the pathos that we think it ended up having. So much of this was a discovery in the process of making it. At times it was brutal and terrifying, and at the same time, always so invigorating and really an adrenalized experience, particularly when we were shooting it.
It’s paced like a ‘70s conspiracy thriller. There’s a reason why true crime documentaries are popular, and it’s because they follow a very familiar beat-beat-beat format. Whereas this has the pacing and feel of fiction, while it’s not. Can you talk about finding the narrative in this real footage?
Yeah, it’s funny. I’m going to mention McCabe & Mrs. Miller even though this doesn’t feel like McCabe & Mrs. Miller. But that is a film that my DP and I spoke about in terms of people really in the elements. The way the camera was used, the way a zoom lens can be used. Not going overboard, but utilizing that ‘70s zoom at the right moment in the woods. Then also thinking about The Parallax View, and Fincher’s Zodiac, which is one of my favorites of all time, and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder was another one that was definitely in my mind as we were shooting and even editing. I’m a ‘70s movie freak, like so many of us are, and I always felt this one particularly had even more in common with a combination of ‘70s paranoid thriller and graphic novel mashup than a documentary. I was less interested in it feeling like a doc. I wanted it to feel a little funkier than that, which is what the story really tells you it’s going to be, you know?
Yeah. Is the graphic novel idea the reason why you went with animation instead of reenactments of those scenes?
So we were discussing early on, “How are we going to visually express this?” And Mark Duplass said, “What about animation?” My reaction, initially, was, “Eh, I’m not crazy about animation in docs, actually.” It just hasn’t been something that, to that point, had really spoken to me. He put us in contact with an animator that had worked with the Duplass brothers before, and he’s up in the Pacific Northwest. His name’s Drew Christie. I spoke to Drew and said, “Hey, I’m just going to send you two minutes of David telling this story about what happened that night in the fall of ’93. I don’t even want to give you direction. I just want you to do your thing, and let’s see what happens.” And about a week and a half or two weeks later, he sends me back 90 seconds of animation that I don’t even know if a frame changed from that test to the final show. He captured and created a world so beautifully. I’m sure I probably mentioned to him “graphic novel feel,” but that’s it. Once I saw his test, we were off and running in that sense.
Another thing I really appreciate, and I’ll dance around any late-game spoilers for people who haven’t seen the series yet, is that this ends up being a show that’s about how we make monsters – legendary myths, but also the ones that are in our day-to-day lives. Can you talk about going through your footage and realizing that there’s actually a really strong thematic point there and building the series to come to that?
The deeper we got, the more we realized that there were many monsters in this story. What they were all consistently doing was wielding fear. Folklore, if you really start to dig into it, is always intertwined with fear. I’m going to try to do the similar dance that you’re doing here, so I’m going to be careful, but people are terrifying. Sure, the boogeyman is terrifying. But really, your neighbor is terrifying, potentially. That person that you may run into in the woods is terrifying. Monsters are real, and sometimes they look like us. Sometimes they look like Bigfoot, and I think our show really straddles the line of which one of those are in control at certain moments.
We’ll end on a slightly lighter note. After all of this and discovering some very human monsters, where do you fall on Bigfoot? Real? Yay or nay, after all of this time?
That’s a very fair question. Going in, I was a hundred percent no. And then I spent time up in those woods, and David really captured it, I thought, really eloquently. It’s in the first episode, and he says something to the effect of, there’s an element of the supernatural that seems to run at a higher vibration up there when you’re in those woods. God, those trees – they’re so big, and if you’re deep enough in that forest, you’d think, “Oh yeah, a brontosaurus could walk by at any moment.” By the same token, you start to understand how and why people could maybe believe that there is a sasquatch running around. Your senses take on what I would almost describe as a parallel version that is then heightened. I found myself questioning sounds and smells more than I probably would in my everyday life. I have to see it to be able to know something is real, for me, but when you’re in those woods, all of a sudden it seems like anything is possible.
The post ‘Sasquatch’ Director Joshua Rofé Shares the Dangerous Details Behind the Enthralling New Hulu True Crime Series [Interview] appeared first on /Film.